04 January 2010

Family recipe Monday: teacakes

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be....
--Simple Gifts, Shaker Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr., 1848
On Mondays, I'll make it a point to post selections from the family recipe project, Simple Gifts. We have all been working on this off and on for 12 years. Gene has been scanning the actual handwritten recipes to go along with the text. As you can see from this first one, some are quite cryptic. You know how to do it or you don't....


Original card: at right

Slightly later version:
2/3 lb. butter
2 ½ cups sugar
1 cup buttermilk
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
5 to 7 cups flour

Directions added for family recipe book:
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add eggs 1 at a time, mixing well. Add buttermilk, baking soda and vanilla. Add enough flour to make a stiff dough. Roll out in batches on floured board, adding more flour to the dough as needed. Cut out cookies and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 F until bottoms are just browned. Makes 4 to 6 dozen.

--Nancy Ellinor Honnoll Walker, Mary Marcella Walker Brooks, Vada Brooks Johnson
(NB: I know it says sour milk, but I never saw my grandmother use anything but buttermilk. And, yes, I know that there's a difference.)

I submitted the following expanded version of the teacake recipe for The Monkeygiving Cookbook, or How to Save the World One Meal at a Time, a compendium of college friends' recipes edited by Yvonne Dailey. And they actually published it....


This recipe is the oldest one I have. It goes back a good 150 years, to my great-great grandmother Nancy Ellinor Honnoll Walker . I think it may be the only recipe of that vintage in that line of the family that anyone ever wrote down. It’s part of the large number of recipes that her daughter, my great-grandmother Mary Marcella Walker Brooks, relied on when as a widow she ran a boarding house in Altus, Oklahoma, during the Depression years. Gran Brooks didn’t write much down, either—didn’t need to, ever—so whatever we didn’t learn to cook is now the stuff of legend . But the teacakes have come down unchanged. They are basically sturdy homemade shortbread cookies, plain and simple. Efforts to tart them up with orange extract, sugar topping and the like can be done, but are basically regarded as heretical. They can be thought of as the Quakers in the holiday cookie wars.

This recipe starts with butter and sugar, so it does not get a seal of approval from the American Heart Association. It is smoothed with buttermilk, leavened with baking soda (not powder), elevated with vanilla, pulled together by a couple of eggs, and then given structure by white flour. Lots of flour. Part of it is mixed in and part of it is then kneaded and worked in to create a stiff dough that will roll out without sticking.

Both my grandmother and my great-grandmother always said “Teacakes is a half a day’s work” when requests were made for baking them. Never failed, at least with my grandmother. You ask for teacakes, you get that response. You give up on the request, guiltily. The next day you get the teacakes. Never failed. I have never had any trouble making 3 to 5 dozen (depending on the batch and on how thinly I rolled them out) in 2 hours. Part of the half-day problem may be that the unbaked dough is wonderful and is subject to thieving by children (and unscrupulous adults) sneaking into the kitchen. Or so I hear. I wouldn’t know, myself, obviously.

I usually roll the dough out between ¼” and ½”. You can use a biscuit cutter for these if you have such a thing, but the approved and strictly correct tool for cutting out the teacakes is a water glass with a smooth rim. Anything else is a bit too effete for Altus, Oklahoma. I use one of my grandmother’s wooden rolling pins, because if the dough does not stick to wood I know it’s got enough flour. If I’m feeling like a Depression boarding house re-enactor, I use a hollow glass rolling pin filled with ice chips (not ice water) for verisimilitude. That’s a good strategy in a very hot kitchen. Please do not talk to me about silicon rolling pins, not unless you want to see that tic go off under my eye.

These go on an ungreased cookie sheet in a low oven (350 F) and are baked just until the bottoms are a light to medium tan. Too much browner, and the teacakes will taste like burned flour. Ungreased because they are made with 2/3 of a pound of butter, low oven because of the same thing. They need to be cooled completely before they are ready to go. They will keep for weeks in a closed container, and are sturdy enough for sack lunches and field supplies. The longer they are out in the air, the crisper they get. You’ll have to experiment to determine where the magic ideal crisp point is for you. I give them a day or so before I put them into any kind of closed container.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl and add them in. Add the buttermilk, baking soda and vanilla extract. Start mixing in the flour a cup at a time until the dough is too stiff to stir. Scrape the dough onto more flour on the work surface and continue working flour in by hand, kneading gently, until the dough is stiff and no longer sticky. This may be quite a bit of flour. Don’t try to work it in all at once; add about a cup at a time and work that in thoroughly before adding more. It should roll out without sticking to a wooden pin when it is ready. At this point it is just delicious, so defend your arena of operations as appropriate. Tell your kitchen thieves about the mortal dangers of raw eggs. Didn’t work for my grandmother at all, but it might work for you. Maybe.

Roll out the remaining dough in batches, ¼” to ½” thick, and cut out teacakes with a biscuit cutter or water glass. Place teacakes on ungreased baking sheets about 1” apart (they will expand a little bit). Bake for 15-20 minutes or until bottoms are light brown. Remove and cool thoroughly on wire racks for several hours or overnight. Makes anywhere from 3 to 5 dozen. Store in closed containers at room temperature. Serve to survivors of the dough theft wars.

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